The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts – Maxine Hong Kingston (1975)

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I picked this book up as part of my ongoing effort to read more diverse books and combining that with the evergreen goal of reading from my TBR. Plus – it also fit in a missing year on my Century of Books project as well. Check, check, and check.

I’d heard of this title, but wasn’t exactly sure what it was about much more than it was a creative autobiography of a Chinese immigrant to the U.S., and this is what the read was, in the end, but it was certainly a lot more than the run-of-the-mill story of someone’s life. A lot of libraries tend to classify this novel as “creative nonfiction.” (My issue with that is what is the final ratio of facts to fiction before it tips over into 100% fiction? Perhaps I’ll never know…)

On the surface, it’s a well-written autobiography of Hong Kingston, and there are strong overlaps between what Western historians would call “personal history” and the culture of being a Chinese person in America. However, this fairly straightforward personal history is filtered through a large lens of Chinese culture, myth, and folklore, and when I was done with the read, I was a bit dizzy with the whole ride. It was good, but it was a bit of a wild journey.

The narrative structure is divided into five pieces. (I’d say “chapters” but I think that these separations are more meaningful than the typical chapter in traditionally structured fiction pieces.) Throughout the reading, Hong Kingston smoothly blends the facts of her childhood, myths and talk-story of old China, and then combines the result with the Chinese diaspora experience in the US.

It’s very dreamy and surreal in many ways, and so the passage of time is flexible which means that you’re just not sure what is true and what is not.

(Side note: Thinking about it, I think that the argument of truth vs. fiction could be held for every autobiography as memory is not always accurate (even when it is).)

I’m actually finding it pretty difficult to review this in any helpful way for you, so I’ll just give you some pointers if you’re thinking about reading it. (It’s a very common text for freshmen lit survey classes in US campuses.)

  • Be prepared to go with the flow as it’s not a linear A-B-C narrative arc.
  • Be prepared for some magical realism type of writing.
  • Be prepared to enjoy a mélange of Chinese myth and family dynamics of a family who are fairly recent immigrants.
  • Familiarize yourself a bit with the Chinese Revolution history as it plays a major role in the background.
  • Be prepared for a litany of character names: Brave Orchid, No Name Woman, Fa Mu Lan, Sitting Ghost, and loads of others.
  • Finally, I would recommend that you read this novel in big chunks of time instead of a pick-up put-down manner.

So a pretty good read, but not as awesome as I thought it was going to be. (This may have been my fault as opposed to the book’s fault though.) Plus – it’s a title off the TBR pile. Hooray for that.

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Catch Up Time…

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So I’ve been doing some reading and thought I’d do a quick catch up post of mini-reviews for you. Nothing wrong with these books at all – just perhaps don’t have that much to say about them, really. Don’t let that stop you from reading them (except for the Bradbury – I can save you some time there. :-))

A Child in the Forest – Winifred Foley (1974)

A delightful memoir of a childhood growing up in the Forest of Dean with a family close to the poverty line – perhaps poor of money, but rich in other ways (but that’s not much good if you’re cold and hungry though….) Anyhoo, this was a really sweet and poignant collection of autobiographical memories for Winifred Foley, and almost made me cry. Along the lines of Cider with Rosie (pre-blog) but a bit tougher of a childhood, I think. The author has a very sly sense of humor which frequently made me smile.

Farewell Summer – Ray Bradbury (2006)

Having been delighted with Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine , I came across this sequel only to find out (post-read) that it’s actually Book 3 in a trilogy. (Dandelion Wine is number one.) No worries. This still works out of order. It’s a fictional take on a small town group of boys who are coming of age as the summer months come to an end, and there are some really good descriptions here of the long summer days and an ongoing half-serious half-humorous battle between the old men and the young gang. Both groups are aching to stop time (but for different reasons), and it’s this theme that runs through the novel. I adore Dandelion Wine, and consider it to be one of the best autumn books to read at that time of year. I think that this title would also be good to read when the leaves turn. However, no leaves turning here and as I’d also been reading another childhood memoir (but NF), I think that this title suffered in comparison. (Plus there was a very unexpected last chapter which was totally out of the character with the rest of the book. Bit weird.) A very quick read, and one I’ll have to pick up again in a few months. It might be fun to read the whole Green Town Trilogy (as it’s called)…

And by golly, I’m determined to finish Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns this week. It’s been a few weeks on this one, and I just need to devote some solid reading time to it. Also about growing up in a small town up in the Potteries in England (but this is set later on in childhood, really). I’m enjoying it, but just piddling around with this read. More to come.

How’s your reading life coming along?

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The Endless Steppe – Esther Hautzig (1968)

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In my last post, I had mentioned that I had fallen upon the Dewey 900s at the library. Such riches that I didn’t even knew existed! Without any more further gushing, let me now introduce you to the title “The Endless Steppe” by Esther Hautzig.

As a child, Hautzig and her family had the bad luck to be living in Poland (now Lithuania) just as WWII was starting up and Germany was invading places left, right, and center. She had come home from school one day, only to be faced with the news that she and her parents and grandparents were going to be sent away to Siberia that same day for being evil capitalists. They could only take one small bag with each of them, and there was very little time of to think of what to include in your luggage. How would you ever know what to pack quickly for an unexpected and unwanted trip-with-no-return to a forced labor camp in Siberia?

Hautzig does a great job of communicating the chaos and panic which would happen if your family were suddenly told one day to leave. Siberia is cold, but how cold? What would the living conditions be like as compared to their upper-middle class life in Poland? Looking back at this with twenty-first century eyes, it’s almost unbelievable that this all happened to millions of innocent families, but it did and this autobiography details the experience through the eyes of a young 11 year old girl.

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The family spend weeks in an unheated cattle car on a train, never knowing where they were going or when they would get there. There were no bathroom facilities, the cars were very crowded with no seats, and no food or water (apart from that that they had brought themselves). None of the passengers were prepared for this (because – why would you be?) and as the train went east, the temperature dropped and the scenery became flat and treeless.

At first, it seems quite an adventure, but as conditions deteriorated, the seriousness of the situation becomes clear. What also becomes clear is that the family and their fellow passengers can do absolutely nothing about their unexpected journey, apart from try to be mentally strong. Her parents (and grandparents) had been of a professional class (her father was an engineer), but as the miles passed, they found out that whatever their professions may have been was to be of no importance in their Siberian future.

The family was separated (never to see each other again), and Esther and her parents eventually wound up at a gypsum mine where her father would be expected to drive a horse and cart, and her mother – who had never worked in her life – was going to be dynamiting the gypsum in the mine. Food was in short supply with watery cabbage soup being the most common meal, and although life is really very hard, Esther and her family survive through the extreme temperatures with few resources. Their privileged life in Lithuania was of little help to them now that they were reduced to survival mode.

This autobiography is an interesting read about a pretty typical middle class family who is suddenly thrown into an atypical situation and how they cope. It’s not easy, but by the time five years have passed, the war is over and the family are set to return. One would think that they would be very excited to get back home and to their former lives, but getting home would mean returning to nothing as their house and possessions would not be waiting. Additionally, Esther had spent five years growing up on the steppe, and to her, it was home much more so that Lithuania would be.

This was an interesting read. I think it’s classified as a YA but the story is so well written that it really sucked me in. Interestingly, the story only came to light when the author Esther Hautzig wrote a letter to a journalist who had written another article about this whole thing, and the reporter suggested to Esther that she write her story down. Hautzig didn’t do any more autobiographical work after that, and in fact, kept well away from it publishing a few titles to do with frugal sewing on a budget.

Despite the YA label, this was an excellently written book about a harrowing experience.

Dreams From my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance – Barack Obama (1995)

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Wincing at whatever the latest gaffe that our latest President has talked himself into, I thought it would be pretty interesting to take a look at the man who had just left the U.S. Presidency and learn a bit more about his life. Written in 1995 (and thus written when he was only in his early thirties), this well-written autobiography was an easy and interesting read about the life of the first African-American President in these here States.

I really enjoyed this deeper look at Obama, and seeing from where he came and how he had seen his life as he was growing up. I knew that he was born biracial and that he had had a lot of his childhood in Hawaii, but apart from that (and from his actions from when he was in office), I didn’t know that much about him. After having read this book and looking back at his Presidency, I can understand so much more about how he sees the world, how his world view included everyone (as opposed to a few rich white men), and how he had to piece his own identity together from a scattered family.

Regardless of how you feel about Obama, his life is an interesting read. He’s not perfect, but there is much to admire, IMO, and he has always been honest in his flaws and used them as a framework to develop a more tolerant country in so many ways.

This was a fast and fascinating read for me to learn about our former President, one who (for me) is missed every day.

Let’s do some catch-up…

catch_upSo I’ve been reading, but there seem to have been one or two titles which are good but not quite enough to warrant an individual blog post. Honestly, I don’t think it’s the books’ fault so much as it is the reader’s in each case, so don’t think these books are less worthy or anything. It’s mostly a time thing at the moment.

A Long Way Home – Saroo Brierley (2015).

This is an autobiography written by a young man who grew up very poor in an Indian city and who, one day when he was only five years old, was playing on the train tracks with his older brother when he accidentally got locked into a railway carriage and was whisked away across the country to Mumbai, where he was put into an orphanage and then adopted by an overseas couple. This tale is how, by overcoming all the odds, he found his way home again. (This is the book that the movie Lion is based upon, btw.) It’s a fantastic story – that’s true – but I think the read would have been better if he’d used a professional ghostwriter (or editor) to up his writing game a bit. It was well written (in that there were few grammar errors etc.), but the level of writing was rather fundamental and rather clunky at times. Still a good story though. It might be better to watch the film than read the book.

Trifles – Susan Gaspell (1916)

I had recently been playing around with my Century of Reading (COB) project, and wanted to find a title that would help fill in some of the remaining blanks (not many really). So I searched for “books published in 1916”, and wanting a more esoteric title and something that wasn’t 500 pages long, picked out a play which seemed to fit the bill.

Just to be clear, despite the play being called Trifles, the play is not about that wonderful English confection of jelly/jello, whipped cream and other fine tasty tidbits. It’s used, in this case, in the sense of “seemingly unimportant things usually linked with women and said by men”… :-}

This play (which I’d not heard of before but I’m not a dramatic expert by any means) was interesting and is actually one of those stories that stick in your head for ages after you’ve finished it as you mull over the various interpretations of how it could be read (or played).

Set out in the country of somewhere like the Midwest, the narrative revolves around the death of Mr. Wright, a farmer who lived in a remote house along with his wife (obvs. called Mrs. Wright). The local sheriff and a deputy are searching the home for any clues after learning that Mr. Wright had died by strangulation. Was it a murder, and if so, who did it?

At the same time as the police officials are searching for clues, there are two women from the nearby community also accompanying the two men in a tag-along sort of way. The small community is far from other towns so any news is big news to the local folk. (It’s really interesting, btw, to see how these guys treat the crime scene vs. now how the crime scene is treated i.e. stomping around everywhere… 🙂 )

They are all unsure how to explain the crime until the women find a dead canary….

It’s a pretty good play to read, but I was more happy, TBH, that it filled out a year in the COB project. 🙂

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Library Haul – It’s good to have choices…

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So, as tends to happen on the weekend, I visited the library and ended up leaving with quite the stack. I’m not sure if I will actually get to all of these, but it’s fun to have the choices..

Top to bottom in above image:

        • This Side of Paradise – Scott Fitzgerald 1920 (F)
        • The Crofter and the Laird: Life on an Hebridean Island – John McPhee 1969 (NF)
        • The Endless Steppe – Esther Hautzig 1968 (NF)
        • Bedknob and Broomstick – Mary Norton 1943 (F)
        • Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways – Larry McMurtry 2000 (NF travel)
        • Dreams from My Father – Barack Obama 1995 (NF – autobiography)
        • As Texas Goes: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda – Gail Collins (2012) (NF – political)
        • Eyewitness Books: Sports – Tim Hammond 1988 (NF)
        • Eyewitness Books: Building – Philip Wilkinson 1995 (NF)
        • Eyewitness Books: Castle – Christopher Gravett 1994 (NF)

I was interested to see that the U.S. title for the kidlit book, Bedknob and Broomstick was singular. In my mind and growing up in England, I had always heard it as plural (i.e. Bedknobs and Broomsticks), but that could easily have been a faulty memory on my part. I’m going to read this as part of my ongoing Century of Books project – it fills out 1947 rather nicely.

I am deep into Obama’s autobiography. I miss that guy…

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal – Amy Krause Rosenthal (2016)

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Having read and totally enjoyed (nay, adored) Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s early book title, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life , I knew that the odds were that her new pub was also going to be of the same vein: experimental, drily funny, and wonderful – and so it was.

Goodreads describes it thus: “a literary experience that is unprecedented, unforgettable, and explosively human”, and I would argue that it’s that and a lot more. It’s really truly one of my favorite books so far this year. (Admittedly, the year is still young, but still….)

If you’ve read any of Krouse Rosenthal’s work, you’ll know that she is an artist who is comfortable pushing the edges of literature and the idea of books. Her work is not difficult to read, but there’s little linearity and very little of the traditional format that a reader would expect in a more traditional publication. And it’s this experimentation and playing with the format that makes Krouse Rosenthal’s work so much to read (at least it is for me). I really admire Krouse Rosenthal, and I just know that if we knew each other, we’d be close friends (in a completely non-weird non-freaky manner).

(Maybe I’ll call Krouse Rosenthal “AKR” in future paragraphs. It’s shorter. Besides, we’re friends…)

One of the first things that I noticed when I picked up this title is that it’s a very interactive experience. AKR encourages readers to text (as in phone text) her number and join in the reading experience that way, so it’s not just you sitting down and reading a book. It’s you reading a book, joining hundreds of other people at the same time in a social experience that is happening real-time. (It sounds like a pain, but it’s not at all as you can see if you visit her accompanying website right here.

The title, Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, refers to a number of different things (which you’ll learn about if you read this), but it’s structured in a similar manner as a timetable in middle school with chapter headings titled “Social Sciences”, “History”, “Music” etc., just as a middle school student would face during his or her typical day. Under each chapter heading are pages and topics that relate to that theme in some way. For example, under “Music”, one comment is “You don’t see very many chubby orchestra conductors.” (It’s much much better than that example portrays. I promise.)

There is loads of white space, but it’s more of a space to breathe than negative space. The paragraphs can be short and interestingly formatted, and it’s not chronological at all as subjects are grouped by topic rather than a strict timeline. It’s as though you are inside AKR’s head as she remembers things – very similar to perhaps you (and certainly I) remember things. Just jumping around from one thing to the next with perhaps only a tenuous connection (if anything at all) between each separate thought.

I’m not at all certain that I’m doing this work justice, but if there is only one thing that you extract from this paltry review, it’s that you should go ahead and read it. Honestly. It’s that good.

ETA 03/24/2016: Just learned that Amy Krause Rosenthal died from cancer this week. 😦

The Worst Journey in the World (Volume II) – Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)

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Exploring is all very well in its way, but it is a thing that can be very easily overdone.

Goodness me. What a ride this autobiographical book was as it follows the (true) travels of a well-meaning (but rather poorly trained) crew of men trying to reach the South Pole of Antarctica. It was heart-breaking to read of their efforts knowing that, in the end, a significant portion of them would die of hideous things such as starvation, frost-bite, and other causes.

apsleyI had read Volume I of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s book earlier, and had been mesmerized by its details, so happily picked this volume up to continue the journey. Volume I had clearly shown how challenging the expedition had been for the crew, and Volume II, now including excerpts from the journals of some of the other expedition members, was absolutely harrowing in terms of hardship and misfortune for these well-meaning men.

“We did not suffer from too little brains or daring: we may have suffered from too much.” Excerpt from one of Sir Robert Falcon Scott’s more modest entries in his journal.

The expedition had had two goals, neither of which really supported the other, a situation which could be argued to be one of the fundamental reasons why it went so haywire in the end. Let me explain:

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The ship, Terra Nova, in 1911 when it first arrived in Antarctica.

The two competing goals were both very focused on England taking the lead in both the scientific world and the exploring world – to be the first team to officially reach the South Pole (and thus “claim” for the Empire) and to also engage in some serious scientific research thought to help further understanding of the still fairly young idea of evolution. Funding had been short, and so the months before the expedition had been spent traveling around looking for financial donors, all of whom expected to have a stake in the outcome, and with only a small government grant to support them, they were heavily dependent upon the private sector.

The media at the time was very focused on which country would reach the South Pole first, a focus that has been compared to the media frenzy of the Space Race between USA and USSR in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) had tried to reach the South Pole on two earlier attempts without success, and indeed, this particular expedition’s leader, Sir Robert Falcon Scott, had attempted to reach it just a few years before. (Shackleton was a third officer on Scott’s 1901-04 unsuccessful Discovery expedition, and in fact, was interested in making a bid to reach the South Pole around the same time as Scott. He and Scott had a pretty big argument about this and treading on each other’s toes on the southern continent and this led to all kinds of ramifications for both of them, including who had the most honorable intentions. Scott won that battle, but really, I think Shackleton wasn’t a bad guy.)

This was also just before the start of WWI, and so England had not yet been exposed to the huge mass casualties and psychological damage of losing an important war and large swathes of its young men. England was still supreme in the world, the “sun never set on the empire”, and it seemed that there was absolutely nothing that an Englishman could not do if he applied himself.

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Map showing both Scott’s (green) route and Amundsen’s (red) route to South Pole. (Credit: Wikipedia.)

Combine this with the fact that Norway (the upstarts! :-)) were also in the race for the South Pole, and things were a bit fraught all around. When the Scott Expedition left England to sail for the Antarctic (via New Zealand), they left with loads of optimism and with the knowledge that Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s team was not going for the South Pole but would be, instead, heading for the North Pole. All seemed to be running smoothly with little competition, until, around the Cape of Good Hope in Southern Africa, Scott was informed that Amundsen’s team had done a switcheroo and were instead racing his team to Antarctica. (Not very good sportsmanship, what ho?)

So, two expeditions were hurrying seaward towards Antarctica, both with the weight of their countries hanging heavily around their necks. Scott’s ship almost sunk at one point in a terrible storm losing some of their ponies and dogs overboard (a detail which would become important later on), and it was all rather awful.

Keep in mind that few people had ever been to this continent, and so it was almost the equivalent of going to the moon. No one really knew the terrain that well or its seasonal weather, so there was a lot of guesswork going on with regards to equipment and life experience. The equipment was also technically terrible (although cutting-edge at the time), with plenty of wool, cotton, leather, canvas and fur (for boots, gloves, sleeping bags etc.) None of this helped.

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Siberian ponies on board the Terra Nova prior to arrival.

They finally landed in Antarctica after being stuck in pack ice for a delay of 20 days which affected food supplies, and meant that the expedition would land later in the year than planned which meant less prep time and more bad weather. Unloading the ship meant other calamities, including losing one of their motorized sledges which fell off during the landing process and upon which the expedition had been banking on. The weather was terrible (not surprising when it’s close to the Antarctic winter months) and the expedition were also intent on using ponies as pack animals to haul supplies around. With such obstacles to their planned time line, Scott was advised to kill some of the ponies for food, but Scott refused to do that.

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Captain Scott in his end of the hut in 1911. He thought it would be a good idea to organize the one hut along the same lines as a Naval ship: officers at one end and enlisted at the other. divided by a  blanket. He, of course, got the better end of that deal…

Before they’d even started, three ponies had died from the cold or because they slowed the team down, three more drowned when sea-ice unexpectedly gave way, but Scott was still confident about meeting the end goal. And after reading this whole document, I’m still not sure whether Scott was too over-confident with his expedition goals. Looking back, it seems somewhat foolish to gamble with all these unforeseen misfortunes, but was there really an alternative to moving forward? Perhaps not at this point.

And so the expedition moves forward. It survives appalling weather conditions, frequent blizzards, an ever-lowering stock of pack animals (including dogs). The team receive more ponies half-way through to supplement their stock, but these new ponies have been sent from India and thus are poorly suited to Antarctic conditions. The men work closely together, and there is no mention of any insurrection among the ranks, but boy. I bet there were plenty of grumpy comments inside their heads!

“The day really lives on in my memory because of the trouble of [one of the expedition members]. He fell into crevasses to the full length of his body harness eight times in twenty-five minutes. Little wonder he looked a little dazed.”*

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Emperor Penguins.

So, I mentioned that the expedition had two feuding goals, one to reach the South Pole first and one to do scientific research work. One of the main scientific objectives was to collect some specimens of embryonic eggs from the huge Emperor Penguins who inhabited land down there. (Some penguins weighed up to 6.5 stone/88 lbs and some 45“ in height, and their embryos were believed to be important evidence in proving a point of evolution. As it turns out, theories had evolved by the time the expedition returned to England which was heart-breaking for me as the reader. Some of these men had risked their lives to get samples and to bring them back in one piece, and then when they were turned into the museum, the expedition rep was told that the specimens weren’t wanted. Yikes.)

cherry_garard_sign_revSo, anyway, as you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this read and could chat for quite some time about it, but am pretty sure that perhaps not all of you will share this new obsession. It sent me down Wikipedia rabbit holes for quite some time. There were also overlaps between this expedition and our recent trip to England, as the young author and researcher mentioned earlier (Apsley Cherry-Garrard and only 24 years old) happened to be born in Bedford (my home town), we saw one of Scott’s original journals on display at the British Library, and then at the Royal Mews, there is one of the Queen’s carriages that contains a piece of wood that was the actual hut that Scott and some of his team lived in during this expedition. It also contained some wood from the earlier Shackleton expedition as well. (Amazing how things can overlap sometimes, isn’t it?)

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The Queen’s carriage at the Royal Mews. This vehicle contains a piece of Scott’s main hut during the Antarctica expedition 1910-1913. (It also contained some wood from Shackleton’s polar hut as well.)

Apsley, btw, had no polar experience, was not a scientist, had few relevant skills, but gave quite a bit of financial backing to the expedition (twice!) and thus was selected based wholly upon that. His journal entries about his novice skills can be witty, but are also heart-breaking:

“I confess I had my misgivings. I had never driven one dog, let alone a team of them; I knew nothing of navigation; and [the depot} was a hundred and thirty miles away, out in the middle of the Barrier and away from landmarks. And so we pushed our way out… I felt there was a good deal to be hoped for, rather than to be expected.”

[Very sad face.]

One very very sweet factoid about Apsley: He was rather shy and didn’t get married until he was about 50 or so, and when he first met his soon-to-be much younger wife, the first gesture of courtship he did was to give his wife a small stone. This only makes sense when you know that the first gesture of courtship between an Emperor Penguin and his mate is when he gives her a small stone with which to start building their nest. He called the stones “penguin jewels.” Awww. Sweetness.

I’ve just ordered a biography of Apsley yesterday, so very much looking forward to reading that. He seems to be one of the nicest people on the expedition now that I’ve read his journals.

*Hugely massive understatement!

 

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi (2016)

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I had an amazing read of Paul Kalanithi’s autobiography called “When Breath Becomes Air.” Kalanithi was a young surgeon (aged 36) and in the final year of his neurosurgical residency when he received the troubling diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. He had none of the risk factors for this cancer, so it was totally out of the blue and arrived right at the time of his life when he’s just about to finish the arduous training and begin his “real” life of being a surgeon. He and his wife are both physicians so they know what the CT scans show, and when they hear that Kalanithi has about one year to live, what to do, what to do.

And so this short but powerful read is a meditation on what life means, both philosophically and in real life: Kalanithi is a philosopher as much as he is a surgeon and so this reads as more of an existential meander through those final months. It’s got the medical stuff in there, as well, but it’s more of an intellectual journey than you would expect, and though I am not well-versed in the old serious thinkers of yore, it was still an educational ride through this sad time.

As Kalanithi has received this terminal diagnosis, what does that mean for him (apart from the physical process of dying)? He mixes intellectual thought with thoughts of a more pragmatic nature (Which treatment should he have? Should he even attempt treatment at this point? What about having a child with his wife?), and so it’s a very thoughtful book best read slowly so you can digest what is being said.

Highly recommend this title if you’re a fan of physician authors such as Abraham Verghese or Atul Gwande – this is the same genre but a less straight-forward read due to philosophical questions Kalanithi addresses. This one definitely makes you think. (Or it did me, at any rate.)

Displacement: A Travelogue – Lucy Knisley (2015)

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This was a good graphic novel read of the fairly typical mode of bildungsroman (coming of age) structure, but this was notably different from most GNs with that structure in that it was a positive take on learning some lessons. (I find that more than a few GNs which are autobiographical in some way tend to be slightly morose and a touch whiny, but Knisley is very different in that manner: one of the many reasons why I enjoy her GNs so much is her optimism.)

So to the narrative: the author goes on a week-long cruise to accompany her elderly grandparents, both of whom are more than 90 years old, as a grand-daughter and as a caretaker. Clearly the trip wasn’t going to be that easy – both the Grands (as Knisley calls her grandparents) have difficulty with mobility, the grandma has pretty bad dementia, and the grandpa accidentally wets his pants quite frequently (and is unwilling to change his clothing). Aaah. Fun Times.

Knisley is a graphic artist who is really skillful at using her art to give a really strong sense of place to her readers. When I read the story in one go the first time, I could almost see the grandparents’ water-front room and balcony on the ship, and rather unfortunately, smell grandpa.

Being responsible for every aspect of the eldercare can be a large load to lift, especially when you’re by yourself. I imagine it was tough for Knisley, and hats off to her for being willing to support her grandparents in this way. She doesn’t flinch from the rough side of love, and shows both the flip sides of her annoyance with Grandma’s lack of memory and Grandpa’s damp pants with the guilt and love that she feels for them.

And interestingly at the same time, the structure is also built around Knisley reading her grandfather’s actual journal entries from when he was a fighter pilot in WWII, and the contrast between the very able and physically capable young man that her grandfather was in his younger days, and the rather frail very old man that Knisley sees in front of her is incredibly well handled.  As the narrative moves back and forth between the past and the present, I could really empathize with her dueling set of feelings, and yet at the same time, I was also sympathetic with her grandparents as it’s clear that they weren’t doing things just to be difficult. The two perspectives were well done.

I really enjoy Knisley’s work (see my review of Relish and The Age of License), and I’m sad that there is only one more title in her current oeuvre for me to read. Hopefully, more on the way!